By Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor
(CNN)--It was a shipwreck of African migrants off the coast of Lampedusa, a small island in the Mediterranean, that spurred Pope Francis into action.
In the past 18 months more than 500 people have died, or gone missing at sea, trying to escape Africa. The world barely noticed.
Standing on Lampedusa on Monday, Francis prayed for the victims and cast a wreath in the water to commemorate the dead. More importantly, he drew attention to the desperate plight of migrants, in his country and around the world.
“We have fallen into a globalization of indifference,” Francis said, as he stood near an altar made from the salvage of shipwrecks.
The pope wore purple – a color that symbolizes penance in Catholicism -- and prayed that world leaders who ignored the plight of migrants might be forgiven.
“The fact he wore purple and asking for forgiveness was very powerful,” Christopher M. Bellitto a church historian and Associate Professor at Kean University said.
“This is a guy that socks you in the gut and touches your heart.”
It was his first trip outside of Rome since Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio was elected in March as the head of 2 billion Catholics worldwide. And it showed how quickly he is learning to shine the megawatt spotlight of his popular papacy on issues dear to his heart.
There are obvious differences between a Catholic pontiff and a princess.
But watching Francis’ first few months in office, it’s hard not to notice that he seems to have taken a page from the late Princess Diana’s playbook.
The Princess of Wales knew where she went, the media followed. Her activism brought global attention to homelessness, HIV/AIDs, and, most prominently, land mines.
Just as Diana ventured far from Buckingham Palace to wrap her arms around landmine victims in Africa and elsewhere, Pope Francis has taken the papacy out of the Sistine Chapel and into the streets.
Through acts such as embracing a child with cerebral palsy, washing the feet of juvenile delinquents and celebrating Mass on a migrant island, Francis is using the power of his celebrity to bring media attention to dark forgotten corners of the world.
Spiritual life requires more than meditating and reading books, Francis says. Catholics and other people of faith don’t need a “refresher course” to “touch the living God,” he said.
“All we have to do is go out onto the street.”
Taking it to the Streets
On the streets of Lampedusa the pope scaled back on the pomp to be with the migrants, many of whom were Muslim.
The Rev. Thomas Rosica, a Canadian priest close to the Vatican, said the pope had wanted to go to Lampedusa with just a small group, flying commercial.
“There was a simplicity to this that is not normally given to papal visits.”
But challenging messages come with the pope’s simple style.
While Francis was praying at the harbor, a tweet was sent from his @Pontifex account: “We pray for a heart which will embrace immigrants. God will judge us upon how we have treated the most needy.”
We pray for a heart which will embrace immigrants. God will judge us upon how we have treated the most needy.— Pope Francis (@Pontifex) July 08, 2013
The tweet was a 140-character shot across the bow at global leaders wrestling with immigration, most notably in Europe and the United States, said Rosica.